Author: Han Kang
Translator: Deborah Smith
Publishing Date: 2015
Number of Pages: 188
Genre: Contemporary Fiction, Asian Culture, Literary Fiction
Before the nightmares began, Yeong-hye and her husband lived an ordinary, controlled life. But the dreams – invasive images of blood and brutality – torture her, driving Yeong-hye to purge her mind and renounce eating meat altogether. It’s a small act of independence, but it interrupts her marriage and sets into motion an increasingly grotesque chain of events at home. As her husband, her brother-in-law, and her sister each fight to reassert their control, Yeong-hye obsessively defends the choice that’s become sacred to her. Soon their attempts turn desperate, subjecting first her mind, then her body, to ever more intrusive and perverse violations, sending Yeong-hye spiralling into a dangerous, bizarre estrangement, not only from those closest to her but also from herself.
I first came across The Vegetarian through the favourable reviews of a fellow book blogger. His appreciation for the book really piqued my curiosity and when I came across it on a book store, I immediately purchased a copy. Unfortunately, just like the other books I’ve already purchased, it got stuck in the heaps of my books to read.
I originally planned to reserve reading this book until next year because I barely made any headway on my 2017 Top 20 Books to Read List. However, I went against my original plan when I began reading Ulysses, which is a really challenging read (I had to deliberately slow down my pace to be able to appreciate it). Since The Vegetarian seems an interesting and short read, I decided to dig in before going back to the aforementioned James Joyce classic.
I have to begin this book review by dispelling the notion that this book is about vegetarianism. Yes, to some extent, it is about vegetarianism but more extensively, this book is a book of many superfluous layers that dig deeper into the human psyche. Beyond vegetarianism, it is a book that dwells on one’s choices and going against the norms that govern society.
Set in South Korea, this is the story of Yeong-hye, the eponymous vegetarian. Her mundane and uneventful marriage to Mr. Cheong was blown off the lid when one day, Yeong-hye suddenly began having dreams about brutality and blood. As a result of these bloody nightmares, she chose to be a full-time vegetarian, throwing away all the meat in their house. Because of her choice, Yeong-he is on the verge of losing everything she holds in esteem, including her very own family.
The book is divided into three parts, with each part narrated by a different character. The first part, “The Vegetarian” is narrated by Mr. Chong and is about their five-year loveless marriage. It also narrates Yeong-hye’s vivid dreams, causing her to drastically change the way she looks at food. The second part, the “Mongolian Mark”, deals with Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law’s feelings and perversions towards her. The third part, “The Flaming Tree” is about In-hye’s, Yeong-hye’s older sister, relationship with her younger sister.
The book revolves around choices, just as our quotidian existence is always governed by them. The inevitability of choices is something that we deal with on a daily basis. However, there are choices we make that are drastic and radical. On a bigger picture, every one makes choices but it takes a lot of heart to stand by these decisions and choices because our choices will always have consequences. It was the book’s surrealistic portrayal of making choices is something that made me appreciate it.
As a result of her choice, there were consequences which Yeong-hye had to deal with. One such consequence is society’s prejudice, especially towards choices that deviate from norms. “People mainly used to turn to vegetarian because they subscribed to a certain ideology… It seems to me that one shouldn’t be too narrow minded when it comes to food.” “People who arbitrarily cut out this or that food, even though they’re not allergic to anything – that’s what I would call narrow-minded.” These are just among the criticisms that Yeong-hye had to endure when she attended a dinner with her husband’s office mates.
Yeong-hye’s decision also created a rift between her and her family. The scene at the family table is a portrayal of the Asian family archetypes where the males are the domineering force and the females subservient to their choices. When Yeong-hye was struck by her own father, no one stood up for her, until this scene ended in a gruesome incident which is very pivotal in the story.
Also as a result of Yeong-Hye’s choice, everyone close to her began re-evaluating their lives through a microscopic lens. It began with her husband’s admission that their marriage is a loveless one, and merely symbolic. Her artistic brother-in-law’s once duull and monochromatic art was suddenly became more alive and colorful. The last person to re-evaluate her life was In-hye, Yeong-hye’s older sister. Her reflections began when she was left all alone to take care of her sister when she got committed to a mental institution. This is a fitting close to weird novel because in the end, blood was thicker than water.
At first, I thought the story would just be about one’s stern stand for his/her choices in a society marred by prejudices. However, the different odd curve-balls thrown midway through the narrative gave it a weird flavor, reminiscent of Murakami. As I delved deeper into the narrative, the story got weirder and weirder. Yeong-hye’s decision to spurn meat opened other avenues that made the story turn into a darker alley, the height of which is perversion and suicide.
My appreciation then turned into apprehension as I got closer to the end of the story. Maybe this book is partly psychological in nature, about eating and eating disorders. But aside from Yeong-hye’s evolution, there was nothing in the book that is a clear evidence to such supposition. This represents how I really felt about the book. There were just too many questions that were left unanswered.
Overall, I am torn about this book. It has its merits, especially at the beginning. However, I was left with more questions than answers. It is quite a quirky read and I’d like to say I enjoyed it but I felt like there was a disconnection between the book and I. I would have felt better if Yeong-hye got to tell her story, on her own perspective. However, I recommend this book to those who are enamored with Haruki Murakami’s works.
Rating: 3 Stars
About the Author
Han Kang, is a multi-awarded South Korean author. She was born in November 27, 1970 to a family of writers. Her mother, Han Seung-won is also a novelist while her brother, Han Dong Rim is also a writer.
Her debut work was A Convict’s Love which was published in 1995. Her most successful work to date is The Vegetarian, which won her the 2016 Man Booker International Prize for fiction. She is the first Korean to be nominated for the award. The book was also included in the New York Times Book Review’s “The 10 Best Books of 2016”.
In Korea, her works won numerous awards like the 1995 Hankook Ilbo Excellent Writer’s Award, the 1999 Korean Fiction Award for Baby Buddha, the 2005 Yi Sang Literary Award Grand Prize for Mongolian Mark, and the 2010 Dong-ni Literary Award for Breath Fighting.